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Jeanne Moreau as star and as director

Jeanne Moreau and Roger Ebert.

This is ridiculous, I told myself. You've interviewed Ingmar Bergman. Robert Mitchum. John Wayne. You got through those okay. Why should you be scared of Jeanne Moreau? Simply because she's the greatest movie actress of the last 20 years? Simply because she's made more good films for great directors than anybody else? Simply because something in her face and manner has fascinated you since you sat through "Jules and Jim" twice in a row? She's only human; it's not like she's a goddess.

But I suspected that she was. And then she was opening the door to her hotel suite, and all my fears disappeared. Nothing had prepared me to find her so casually direct and friendly. And in none of her 53 films had those great directors quite succeeded in capturing one of her smiles, her little girl smile. Things were going to be fine.

She was in Chicago to attend a film festival screening of "Lumiere," her first film as a director. The house had been sold out for a week, she was glad to hear. She'd just come from Washington and a screening at the Kennedy Center. Then on to Los Angeles where, as always, she would go to see Jean Renoir every day.

"My plane was delayed," she said, "and so I enjoyed a lovely touring prospect in the air above Chicago. But I was sad, because I'd just learned that my friend Alexander Calder had died. I was going to see him in New York. And so I got off the plane and there was another plane there, painted in the colors of a tropical fish. What plane is that? I asked. And they said it was painted by Calder. So his life goes on."

I hadn't seen "Lumiere" yet, I said, because the print hadn't arrived. "How silly of them," she said. "I could have brought it in my luggage from Washington. I've lived with the film for three years now. I might as well travel with it."

Why did she decide, after so many films, to become a director at last? Her film is about four actresses - was she making a statement about her profession?

"Statement? Pah! I hate statements in films. I hope I never make one, except an emotional statement, where the audience will feel as I feel. But not an intellectual statement - for that one writes a book, which is much cheaper and can be done alone in a room. "But direction, perhaps, I didn't wait a long time, but only long enough. I needed that amount of time, after 28 years in movies, to learn to speak up to myself. And there was a lot of money to raise, $600,000. Now it's finished, I'm pleased with it, I'll direct another. But it makes me mad when people call it a 'woman's picture.' Because there are four women in it? But there are men, too. And the whole idea of saying 'a woman's picture' is insulting. Because with a movie like, ah, Le Sting - did they call that a 'man's picture'?"

I'd heard, I said, that she was on a panel with Warren Beatty at the recent Festival of Women's Films in New York. And that she had walked out, What was the story? "That Warren Beatty, he was very rude," she said, pinching her nostrils at the memory. "First, he came 20 minutes late. Then he threw out the television cameras. Why? He wanted to establish a relationship with the audience, which was mostly women. A relationship of power. I could feel it. Merde! So I walked out. I am usually a very calm person, but I was trembling."

Who, I said, partly to myself, has worked with so many great directors as Jeanne Moreau has? Three times with Orson Welles. Twice with Francois Truffaut. With Jean Renoir, Luis Bunuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, Louis Malle....

"I made a decision when I became a star," she said, using the word "star" unselfconsciously because, after all, it was the correct word. "To be a star is to have freedom, but only if you choose it. The people who back movies, the bankers and distributors, treat you like some kind of mine in which they can dig and dig, always digging up the same things they've found there before. So you become trapped. I made a deliberate decision to try to work with good directors. Famous ones or young ones nobody had heard of, it made no difference - if their ideas about film were interesting. Now I can look back and see I've rarely made one to be ashamed of. Even the bad ones were good ideas....

As if to illustrate her point, there was a knock at the door and Daniel Schmid came in. He's the young Swiss director whose "Shadow of Angels" was playing that night in the film festival. They were going to work together in his next film.

"Look what I've brought you," he said. It was one of those glass bowls that you tip over to make a snowstorm. The view was of the Chicago skyline.

"Voila!" She said. "The same view as from my window!" Indeed it was. "And the little glass globe, it is the same as in 'Citizen Kane,' oui? What a perfect gift!" As she kissed Schmid on the cheek I cursed myself for not having stopped downstairs to buy a little glass globe.

Then it was time to go to Maxim's, for a dinner being hosted by film festival director Michael Kutza. Schmid came along and so did the members of the festival jury. Miss Moreau was seated amid a great deal of intense scrutiny from the other women in the room: It must be a trial to be a legend in one's own time. There was a good French white wine. She tasted it and admitted as much to the wine steward. "But vin blanc, it makes me sleepy. Can you bring me, s'il vous plait, a Jack Daniels on the rocks?" He could. She sipped with great pleasure.

"The director Jean Eustache," she said, "he told me, Jeanne you can say all you want about the United States, but you will never know what you are talking about until you drink Jack Daniels. He kept sending me his empty bottles, as if they were sculptures. To make him be quiet, I drank some. He was right! Now I keep it at my farm, in the south of France, to make him feel at home.

"I am always somewhere working, and so my friends use my farm to write their screenplays. For Joe Losey, I must have Russian vodka. For Truffaut, it is champagne. You know, he never would drink a drop. And so I told him, drink champagne, it is lemonade for grown-ups. I think I started him on something."

She studied the menu and then the room. "This part of the room is exactly like Maxim's in Paris," she said. "But the tables along the entranceway, in Paris they go on and on. And of course there is no pillar In the middle of the room in Paris."

"Without the pillar," said Schmid "the building would fall down."

"Then let the pillar stay," decided Jeanne Moreau. She would have steak. She would start with pate. She would have salad after the main course. Would the violinist like to play something for her? He would.

"Play something...Russian." she said. The violinist played "Theme from Dr. Zhivago."

"I do not think that is very Russian," she said. "I have never heard it there...can you play me a waltz?"

"Certainly, madam. What kind of a waltz?"

"A beautiful waltz!"

"A Viennese waltz?"

"What other?"

The violinist played a beautiful Viennese Waltz.

Jeanne Moreau confided to Michael Kutza that she would enjoy another Jack Daniels on the rocks. I made the mental observation that years and years from now, when I retire as an ancient film critic and write one last article recalling the great moments in my long decades of service, the memory of dinner at Maxim's with Jeanne Moreau sipping Jack Daniels and specifying a beautiful waltz would be perhaps the one I treasured most.

"I hate that damned pillar in the middle of the room." Jeanne Moreau mused.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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